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4 Pressing Exercise Variations For Baseball Players

Developing a strong back is important for baseball players.

In the past I have talked about some general tips to use in order to grow a strong and big upper back. I have also given you some of my favorite exercises for the upper back and how to develop it.

This got me to thinking and I realized that not many coaches and athletes know how much of an importance should be placed on the role of the upper back when programming pressing movements for baseball players.

Many people neglect the involvement of the scapulae (shoulder blades) in their pressing variations and fail to see how much they can develop this aspect of their body if they simply focused on a few key details.

This would provide a multitude of benefits for athletes as their upper back plays a huge role in their health and performance.

For baseball players and rotational athletes (hockey, lacrosse, golf etc.) the upper back plays a huge role in not only their swing or shot, but it can also limit shoulder injuries if trained effectively. A strong upper back can help improve posture and limit the internal rotation of the shoulder (internal rotation can lead to labrum injuries due to the compression and force constantly placed on the acromioclavicular (AC) joint). So, not only can we contribute to an aesthetically pleasing upper back by making some adjustments in our pressing, but we can also limit injury and contribute to increases in performance for baseball players.

Here is a quick breakdown of external rotation, how to promote the use of the scapulae for presses with baseball players and my favorite exercise variations to do so!

What is External Rotation?

In my opinion, the best analogy to use to explain external rotation of the shoulders would be to have someone imagine that their arms are outstretched and fully extended with their hands on a wall. On that wall is a big sheet of paper, and your goal is to tear the paper down the middle without moving your hands. How exactly do we do that? Well, think as if you are trying to “screw” your hands into the wall, only without moving your hands outwards.

External rotation is created when we drive our right hand clockwise and our left hand counterclockwise. If we do this without actually moving our hands then we create torque, and that imaginary paper is now torn!

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint, meaning that the humeral head rotates about inside the cup-like socket of the shoulder blade. When we create proper torque the humeral rotates outward, hence “external rotation.”

Many of us perform presses without external rotation, which not only leaves us susceptible to injury but also does not allow us to develop the upper back and shoulder blades to the best of their ability. This has been said many times before, yet I still see baseball players utilizing presses that do not let the upper back work freely and independently of a bench. This is due to a number of factors, which include hand and grip positioning and the side effects of performing presses on a bench.

Basically, when our back is on a bench the bench itself does not allow for full scapula activation and retraction, which can limit external rotation and use of the upper back. Experienced lifters know how to properly activate the upper back and can get around this, but many others struggle.

Lastly, bilateral movements (presses with two hands) can negate the need to isolate each individual shoulder blade due to the fact that using both hands does not require as much stabilization as unilateral movements.

With that being said, here are a few variations that make use of these fundamental principles.

Dumbbell Piston Press

As I mentioned above, unilateral presses allow the shoulder blades to work independently of each other. In addition, they require more external rotation to be created in order to stabilize fully.

If I have a baseball player perform a bench press it will be with dumbbells due to the fact that they require more focused stabilization of the scapulae then barbell presses, and allow for a neutral grip to prevent stress on the shoulders. However, an even better way to guarantee shoulder blade activation and external rotation is to perform dumbbell presses in a piston-like manner. That is, perform each press individually (one side at a time) so that the athlete has to pay attention to activating the upper back and externally rotating at the shoulder in order to properly stabilize the weight.

I will also utilize these presses at lower weights for dynamic/speed repetitions as well for power development.

 

Barbell Push-Up

The barbell push-up not only is a great tool to use in order to teach the art of pressing but also it eliminates the use of the bench (as I mentioned), which can teach an athlete how to cue and activate the upper back while letting the upper back work independently.

Since we are performing presses without the support of the bench we can fully retract the shoulder blades with each repetition and learn how to activate the upper back. This is a simple movement for advanced athletes, so I will usually implement slower movements, isometric holds and even increase the load (with chains) in order to progress the movement and make it more challenging. Any type of push-up variation is great to use for baseball players.

Cable or Band Presses

Similarly to push-up variations, cable and/or band presses allow the athlete to perform pushes that allow the scapulae to work independently of one another. They also help place less stress on the shoulders.

Bottoms-Up Kettle Bell Presses

This last variation is the most advanced and ties in all the principles I have previously mentioned.

Holding the kettle bells in a bottoms-up position makes external rotation a necessity, and is why I love this variation. If you do not properly externally rotate it is almost impossible to stabilize the kettle bell. In addition, we are once again removing the bench from the equation and requiring true activation of the upper back and retraction (pinching) of the shoulder blades.

Lastly, if you really want to advance this variation and take it to the next level you can perform the presses unilaterally (one hand at a time), and tie in the same principles you would be when performing the dumbbell bench press in a piston manner!

 

Low Tech Ways to Maximize Your Bat Speed and Launch Angle

Data-driven training is becoming the norm in baseball. We have learned so much about things like bat speed and launch angle over the last several years. We know so much more about what goes into becoming an elite baseball player.

But the use of technology can be both daunting and expensive, making the implementation of data-driven training difficult. Luckily, you can bypass the need to spend thousands of dollars on technology and still maximize your hitting potential.

Common Limitations

As the hitting instructor at Prairie Heights High School (IN) for the last four years, I have had the opportunity to implement my own philosophies for the offense under the approval of the ex-head coach Nick Pfafman.

In my first year, Nick had a leash on “new” philosophies. He was hesitant to give too much control to an instructor who was, in his eyes, unproven. However, it did not take him long to loosen that leash. After a short period of time in the program, I was able to open the eyes of the players to the fact that there is much more to this game than they had ever experienced.

Not to discredit what Nick was able to accomplish in his time as the coach before I arrived, he was unable to bring a lot of these newer hitting philosophies to the program.

The reason for that can be attributed to his lack of resources (program money, volunteer coaches, equipment, etc.). He had to turn, what was then, a dying baseball program into something successful. Much to his credit, he did a lot of it on his own.

Upon my arrival, we were able to take the base that he created and build on it. We put a heavy focus on offensive production to complement the already solid defense and pitching staff. Over my first four years, we slowly rolled out newer and better hitting practices in an attempt to build a culture that boasted a high-powered offense.

I want to discuss how we used technology, and even the lack thereof, to help baseball players find more success at the plate.

Setting Up Your Batting Cage

We found that the batting cage was a huge tool for us to run an efficient practice early in the season. We tried to keep our players involved with practice 100% of the time so that we did not have the typical BP session of one guy hitting and the rest of the team shagging balls. Aside from the hitting circuits we conducted to keep everyone working, we used the batting cage as visual to teach players about launch angles.

During last season, I took a job as a 16U coach at Hitter’s Edge in Sturgis, MI. Mike Marks, the owner and head instructor, at Hitter’s Edge had recently equipped his facility with a HitTrax machine. The HitTrax machine measures many different metrics including launch angle, exit velocity, and where the trajectory of any hit ball will land.

At Prairie Heights, with the cage being outside and the HitTrax equipment being extremely costly, we did not see that as a possibility at the time. My major focus, after fundamentals, was getting players to understand the launch angle of a batted ball accompanied with bat speed. When you combine those two things and a good fundamental swing, you will find more success at the plate; especially in the way of extra-base hits.

The challenge was, without a HitTrax machine, how do we measure a player’s launch angle of a batted ball.

Despite everything I ever thought in high school trigonometry class, I needed to use math. I used the equation below to figure out the information I needed.

Distance = Height tan(angle)

I wanted to mark the range of where we had to hit the top of the net to achieve the launch angle we wanted.

Our target range was 10° to 30° for our launch angle. We knew our height of the cage was 8’ tall but it needs to be the height of the point of contact to the top of the net. We figured 2’ above the ground was a fair guess. So the height equals 6’ and the first angle is 30° (this will be your closest marker from the plate that you put on your cage).

With this calculation, your first mark needs to be on the top of the cage just shy of 10.5’ away from the plate. The next angle is 10° (this will be your further marker from the plate).

Using the same math, your next marker needs to be 34’ from the plate. I understand that this may be slightly flawed depending on the width of your cage because of where the foul lines are but I think you get the idea here.

Rethinking Batting Practice in a Cage

Allow me to backtrack a little here. When I first met with Mike Marks at Hitter’s Edge, he had a softball player in the cage that he was using HitTrax with during her lesson. He was preaching the idea of lifting the ball. I immediately understand why he was saying this to her. Players at “the next level” can field ground balls just fine so we need to elevate the ball to try to find some “green.”

Line drives and deep, well-hit fly balls are the most difficult hits to defend. The reaction time required to field a hard-hit in the air is much faster than that of a grounder. Batted balls with elevation are obviously not slowed down by the grass and dirt like a ground ball.

I know you are probably thinking “obviously we want line drives and not ground balls” but how often do you hear a coach say “nice hit” when a guy takes him up the middle and the ball hits the back of the cage at belt-height?

I think about how many times in my earlier years of coaching that I would praise a hitter for even hitting a ball six feet off the ground into the side of the net 40’ past the plate. Well, congratulations. That batter probably grounded out. Regardless of how hard that ball is hit, at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels, those balls are going to be fielded.

I decided that it was time was started focusing on hitting the ball over the infielders and, with some added bat speed and exit velocity, over the outfielders.

Think about how big your cage is in comparison to a baseball field.

 

The average cage I use is 8’ tall and 60’ long. If your hitters are peppering the top back corners of the cage, they’re hitting a ball that is only 8’ off the ground by the time it crosses the mound and it still has approximately 60’ of travel left before it even gets passed 2nd base.

So imagine a 6’ tall pitcher and he can probably reach 7’6” with his extended arm and glove which means that best case scenario you hit a ground ball over his head and if you are lucky to have hit the ball hard enough, you may get it passed the middle infielders resulting in a weak hit to the centerfielder.

I do not want you to think that I think that is a bad result because it is not. If you do that every single time you are at the plate you’ll go down in history with the best batting average of all time.

My focus is not to help our guys hit hard grounders that may or may not result in single. My focus is to create an explosive offense that boasts doubles and bombs from top to bottom of the lineup. When I came to this realization, I knew that I needed to change the way I look at results in the cage.

Adding Power to Your Launch Angle with Weighted Bats

Once I was able to get my students and players to understand the launch angle of their hits, I knew it was time to grow from there. Hitting a ball 30° into the air is not enough if your exit velo is 12mph. We needed to build bat speed to accompany everything else and for those of you that have ever seen/hit with a BBCOR or wood bat, you need a lot of bat speed to park a ball 300’+.

I looked into some of the weighted bat systems and I liked the results that their studies were showing but I did not like the price tags on their bats (refer to my previous statement about lack of resources). Every weighted bat system I found included using a hand-loaded bat, an end-loaded bat, an underloaded bat, and then your own game bat.

I had to try to accomplish this cheaply. Luckily for me, I knew a guy.

I played on an adult amateur baseball team in Fort Wayne, IN with Dr. Daniel Nolan. This guy makes wood bats in his free time out of his wood shop (how cool is that?). His bat-making tools are nothing to laugh about either. Everything he makes is hand turned on a professional lathe and he uses a very precise method to make each bat.

I sent him my design idea for the first one, a hand-loaded bat (see picture). He turned it around in a week and this thing was perfect. The next bat I needed was an end-loaded bat so we brainstormed ideas that might work best. He told me about a billet he had that was very dense and heavy (he used a similar one to make a rolling pin in the past). So within a week, he turned another bat for me.

The biggest question was how we were going to add weight specifically in the end of the barrel. Dan had the idea of milling out the end of the bat and adding weight to it so that we did not change the shape of the barrel in any way. So there were my two loaded bats and I had a nice ash bat that was a -5 already which worked as the underloaded bat.

Immediately, I put my new system to work. Using myself and other fellow players as my lab rats for the system, we found success that translated to an increase of 5-10 miles per hour within the six week program.

Based on a study that I found, every 5 mph added to your exit velocity equals approximately 25’ distance on a batted ball hit at a 30° launch angle. When you are talking about adding a potential of 50’ to your hits in 6 weeks, I will buy into that process.

Using Baseball Swing Tracking Apps

Even though we bypassed using the HitTrax machine, we did find other cost-effective tools to evaluate players. The most important tool we used at PHHS, one that we used since day one of my arrival, was an app called Coach’s Eye. I’m sure many of you are already using this app but I cannot get enough of the simplicity of this app.

The other tool we have started using in the past year is the Blast Motion Sensor. This little sensor goes right on the butt of your bat and records many useful metrics. We record the average of everyone’s metrics from each session so that we can show progress over time.

[Editor Note: There are several devices on the market, including Diamond Kinetics and Zepp]

These tools really help all of our players to visualize their swing and their progress. It does not always help the younger kids but it helps their dads so that they can help their son in between sessions.

Putting it All Together

100% of the time I will tell you that fundamentals are king.

Without sound fundamentals, your bat speed, exit velocity, and launch angle are irrelevant because you will not be able to replicate it consistently enough to be considered a good hitter. Whether you teach linear or rotational hitting, you have to be able replicate success consistently before you can get more advanced. I teach rotational hitting to every single one of my students and players. Without sparking an argument with anti-rotational hitting advocated, I just believe that it gives players the best opportunity to make consistent contact in the zone.

Once a player has a good fundamental swing, that is when it is time to start training for bat speed. I do believe that you can discuss launch angles with hitters during the fundamental teaching phase of their training. If you are using a cage to teach fundamentals, then using the launch angle markers in the cage can really help you and your hitters to understand and visualize the goal.

Teaching players to get on plane, increasing their bat speed, and getting their launch angles to the ideal range is the best way to get rewarding results all season long; however, I know that so many people will argue that players still need to put the ball on the ground in hit and run situations and with runner-on-third situations.

I would say that if a player hits a screaming line drive on a hit and run, regardless if he lines out and gets the runner doubled off, then can you really be upset with the hitter. As a coach, the hit and run is always a risky play. I would rather see a hitter hitting a ball hard on a line or with a little elevation than changing their swing altogether for a ground ball. No one ever said you couldn’t hit a double or a homer on a hit and run or with a guy on third base. Change your mental approach at the play, not your swing.

It is time, we as coaches, progress in our offensive policies.

There is room for plenty of old school philosophies in baseball but it is time we quit teaching “swing level” and “put the ball on the ground and make them throw you out”. Players do not get scouted and drafted based on their ability to ground out and move runners the hard way; they get to “the next level” by showing that they can hit for, not only average, but also for power.

It’s a new game we play and you know the old adage: “the best defense is a good offense.”

 

 

Defining the Efficient Baseball Swing

A position player’s value is determined by their ability to hit, more than any other skill, because it contributes so much to winning. Two of the five tools a player can have center around hitting production – power and contact.

For years, hitting instructors have remained locked in the debate on which players represent the most efficient swing, using labels like “linear” or “rotational” to explain the swing approach. On a scale from contact hitters like Tony Gwynn and Ichiro, to pure power hitters like Chris Davis and Adam Dunn, lies a middle ground of balanced hitters like Mike Trout and Barry Bonds who seemingly represent our ideal swing approach.

Only recently, however, has technology allowed us to trace the full swing to have a clearer understanding of what makes up the best baseball swing.

Sabermetrics has established new ways of valuing hitters and understanding efficient offensive production, while modern technologies (Trackman, HitTrax, ZEPP, SportsVision, etc.) have finally enabled us to analyze and truly define the efficient swing. This has helped us begin to answer some of the common questions surrounding the baseball swing:

  • Do we focus on swinging up or down at the ball?
  • Do we focus more on hand path to make contact or on torque with the lower body while allowing our hands to be passive?
  • What professional hitters should we emulate?
  • Which hits have the most value and what is the exact value of each hit?
  • What should my bat speed and swing angle be in order to square the ball up more consistently and increase my likelihood of getting the most valuable types of hits?

 

Physics: What Angles Create Optimal Baseball Swing?

Let’s start with a simple illustration….

We have a pitcher and a hitter both 6’0’’ tall. The pitcher is on a mound, meaning he’s now 10” taller than the hitter at the top of the mound and roughly 5” taller at landing. He’s most likely throwing overhand (99% of all pitchers do), so using an estimated wing span, the ball is now 5” plus 85% of the pitcher’s 1’6” wing span taller than the hitter at release.

As soon as the pitcher lets go of the ball, the ball is constantly slowing down due to wind resistance. If our pitcher is throwing from higher ground to a lower target with the ball constantly slowing down, we know the ball is ALWAYS going down, even at 100mph with exceptionally high spin rates. In fact, the documentary, “Fastball,” makes a point to disprove the idea that even the fastest fastballs do not rise, so we are safe to say the ball is traveling down no matter the pitch.

In order to consistently square up two round objects, the surface of one bat and one ball, given the downward trajectory of the ball, a hitter must swing even or slightly up through contact.

In his article in the Hardball Times, “Optimizing the Swing, Part Deux: Paying Homage to Teddy Ballgame,” Dr. Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois points to a study using Statcast data, in which on-base average is shown as a function of exit speed and launch angle.

The two regions of high on-base average are primarily red. One is the narrow strip extending from 110 mph/100 to ~66 mph/300. The high exit speed part of this strip represents hard-hit line drives with small launch angles, leading to a high on-base average. For the batter, these types of hits are highly desirable. The second important region occurs at high exit speed and launch angles in the 200-350 range. These are largely extra-base hits, primarily home runs.

Additionally, Dr. Nathan looked at BABIP (on-base average with home runs excluded) as a function of attack angle and offset paired with home run probability.

For BABIP, the red/orange strip results in an on-base average greater than about 0.75 and corresponds to launch angles in the range 90-170. The optimum swing parameters for high BABIP are 100and 0.5 inches for attack angle and offset, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 100 mph and launch angle of 120. On the other hand, home runs require a larger attack angle and larger offset, the optimum being 240 and 1.05 inches, respectively, corresponding to an exit speed of 101 mph and a launch angle of 290-300.

In simple terms, a professional player can get a base hit by either hitting the ball very hard between the infield and outfield or by hitting it hard enough over the outfield in the gaps or into the stands.
We’ve known these to be the best ways to get on base, but for the first time we have been provided a measureable understanding of what makes the hitter’s bat be in position to produce these types of hits.

The next question is: Does Dr. Nathan’s heat map data correspond to the swing data of players we statistically label as the best baseball hitters?

Based on these charts, we’d expect the best offensive players to consistently perform within the range of angles and exit velocities corresponding to extra base hits for higher run production and a higher BABIP, so launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph.

 

Statistics: How Do We Value Hitters and Who Do We Value Most?

Thanks to Sabermetrics, the statistical definition of an “efficient” hitter has been linked to maximizing run production by assigning linear weights, or run values to various types of hits.

Since maximizing runs is the ultimate goal, the statistically efficient hitter falls somewhere between pure power (a lot of homeruns with a lot of strikeouts) and pure contact (very little strikeouts, but not high slugging).

Weighted On-Base Average (WOBA) is the current “gold standard” by which we now measure a player’s offensive production, because it assigns actual run production values to types of base hits. Think of it as the very accurate version of Slugging Percentage. Since Major League Baseball statistically defines the “efficient” swing as the one that offers the most potential run production, WOBA serves as our finish line for the “efficient” swing approach. WOBA is defined as:

 

wOBA = [(0.69 × uBB) + (0.72 × HBP) + (0.89 × 1B) + (1.27 × 2B) +( 1.62 × 3B) + (2.10 × HR)]

/ (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

For simplification, let’s limit our sample of players to those who finished in the top 25 in WOBA in each of the last three seasons. We can look for consistencies in the mechanics and swing data of these players to validate the data in Dr. Nathan’s analysis.

The only players to be in the top 25 in WOBA for the last three seasons (2014-2016) are David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion. Therefore, these hitters represent some of the most consistently high value MLB offensive producers in the last three seasons.

Over the course of the season, each of these players’ average launch angles range between 100-150 according to Statcast. The common denominator with these high value hitters is they elevate the baseball.

We’ve now statistically defined the efficient swing as the highest producing WOBA, and physically graphed an efficient swing as launch angles of 90-300 with exit velocities of 100mph. The last piece of the puzzle is defining the mechanics and approaches that produce these measurable results.

 

Mechanics: How Do We Swing Like the Best Hitters?

Using high-speed video to look at current high-value hitters (players with the consistently highest WOBA’s), we can see the commonalities in their swing mechanics.

By seeing where these mechanics overlap, we can determine hitting absolutes versus individual style. Below is an illustration of such mechanics among today’s top hitters. It is a visual road map for training the “efficient” swing as defined earlier. Notice the individual styles allowed in the beginning and end of the swings, but the absolutes that must be accomplished by all hitters between phases 3-7. Notice that every top hitter uses their feet/hips to create bottom-up torque, allows their hands to be relaxed and passive, and swings even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production.


 

Key Points

We want to swing and perform like the best MLB hitters. We define “best” as highest offensive production, or highest run producing potential, represented by the stat WOBA.  The defined best baseball hitters overlap in their swing mechanics and resemble swings like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Anthony Rizzo, Nelson Cruz, and Edwin Encarnacion.

Those hitters’ swing approaches share many common points:

  • Use the feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands.
  • Swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane.
  • Put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.

 

These swing mechanics overlap our observed ideal swing angles from simulated bat/ball collisions, heat map data, and stat-cast data to confirm these swing mechanics represent the efficient baseball swing – the swing with the highest run producing potential.

In conclusion, if we want to perform like the best MLB hitters, we must train to use our feet/hips to create bottom-up torque with relaxed/passive hands, swing even or slightly up to match the incoming pitch plane, and put the ball in the air for maximum potential run production success.